The Stories We Tell
Documentaries are grounded in reality, real life, however we define it. Life involves sharing stories both grand and mundane, both thrilling high adventure and boring daily activities. Since I am relocating soon, I have my own story to share and in turn I have been noticing more the stories people tell me.
These stories intrigue me in several ways: for how they are told, who is telling them, why that person is telling the story, and why that person is telling me the story.
In a Brookline ethical jewelry shop, for example, my friend told the clerk there I got a job in Baltimore (yay). By coincidence, the clerk working there that day was originally from Baltimore. After some exchanges about the nature of my job and the nature of her leaving, she told me about the American Visionary Art Museum, which features works by self-trained artists.
While the museum itself is interesting, I was more intrigued by her story of someone who works for the museum in an unskilled labor position AND has artwork on display there. His reason for working there? To be surrounded — inspired — by art all day.
Another store near where I live carries gift things — purses, jewelry, incense, decorative bowls, clothing, and the like. I looked around in there while I was waiting for my take-out order from a nearby Chinese restaurant, and the clerk finished with a customer and began to talk with me. She asked my occupation, and I told her I was a teacher. (I have learned that saying I am a college professor tends to kill all conversation dead in its tracks, so I just go with “teacher.”)
Like most, though, the clerk assumed I taught elementary school, and she expressed sympathy for how awful it was. She conveyed a story about her friend who taught at a school in the area and assigned an “F” grade to a student. The grade had been earned, but everyone advised her friend to change the grade to a “D” in order to prevent fallout.
The teacher refused. An earned grade is an earned grade. The student’s parents began pressuring the teacher into changing the grade, claiming the teacher had discriminated against the student. The school administrators also had pressed the teacher into changing the grade.
In a slight cliffhanger, the clerk never revealed whether the teacher changed the grade. Instead, she continued to complain about how awful teaching was, even though she never had done it herself!
In both cases of these stories, they followed gender lines. According to gender studies theories, women tend to tell stories about others, while men tend to tell stories about themselves. And here are two stories that serve as neat examples of those basic ideas.
My greater intrigue comes back to why the person is telling the story and why the person is telling me that story. In both cases personal details I offered became catalysts or prompts for what they told. The Baltimore stories were positive overall, but the teaching one was rather negative. That museum sounds like an interesting place to visit, and the man the person mentioned would make for a great documentary short subject. While I, like many other teachers, have experienced the pressures of grade inflation from various fronts, I don’t see value in making a documentary about it. Too many negative stereotypes about teaching exist already, and I wouldn’t want to fuel that fire, particularly since I genuinely like teaching.
A frequent question I receive on this site is, “What should I make a documentary about?” Here is one possible answer: Give people a chance to tell you a story by sharing a little about yourself, and then listen to the stories people tell you. Life is made up of stories, and so are the best documentaries.